On January 1, 2009, a young African-American male named Oscar Grant was fatally shot by a police officer named Johannes Mersehle at the Fruitvale Train Station near San Francisco. He was not armed. At the same time, his story is one of many, too many. But individualism sells, and thus, for a Western audience, Oscar’s story will appeal more than something broader and more explicitly political. This is a right shame, itself predicated on the violence of individualism that denies the communal stories behind Grant’s tragedy, ironic considering this film’s assumed challenge to Western racism. But all of this aside, Fruitvale Station exists in this format, and in this format, Grant’s story is America’s, or minority America’s. And Ryan Coogler is here to share.
And most fascinatingly of all, for all the undeniable broadness and hard-charging, wide-ranging issues at the core of the narrative and its relevance to modern society, Coogler keeps it small. Needless violence and social stratification encircle the story like vultures because they encircle Grant like vultures, not because they’re shoe-horned in: the story is first and foremost the story of life itself, and life not lived. Most damningly, in how Grant’s eventual fate hangs over the film, Coogler posits that life itself may be not living. Grant’s final day is pointedly mundane – he spends much of it looking for a birthday present for his mother – but it’s suffused with an uncanny dread. And within, Coogler finds something unheard of: genuine three-dimensionality for an African-American character. Grant is not a saint, nor a sinner, in the broad-sense, but is instead defined by small, living moments exactly the kinds of human frailties long-denied African-Americans who are always doomed, one way or another, to the violence of stereotyping. This naturalist parable of everyday American life sees social injustice through the eyes of someone who lives and dies through it, and in this regard, it’s a perfect companion piece to 2013’s 12 Years a Slave. And it shows in grimy, lived-in detail how far we haven’t come.
Nonetheless, despite the looming tragedy, there’s a profound and unexpected warmth to the film,watching Oscar going about his motions with a deep matter-of-factness and everyday humanism. Coogler has a way with elevating half-formed dialogue into day-to-day poetry, uneasy pauses, stilted phrasings , and curious mumbles reflecting as much about the characters’ anxious intentions and chilled spines as any word could. Especially when they’re delivered by Michael B. Jordan, a delayed would-be star finally getting his due in an easy-going, off-the-cuff performance, as much sprightly as weary, that captures like nothing else the years on Grant’s life and the years he’s unsure about still living. He’s a deeply anxious person who hides inner pain and violence, most done to him rather than by him, with a half-smirk and an uneasy nod-of-the-head. And Coogler’s never-leaving camera is there to force us to come to terms with every second of it, elevating everyday people to a higher status by exposing their flaws and trading in explicit rage with a mournful, plaintive gulp. It’s a grand sigh of a film.
In fact, Fruitvale Station packs so much of an immediate urgency and vital lived-in naturalism that it’s easy to look over some of its rough edges (especially because, in some sense, these very rough edges give the film its energy to begin with). For one, it’s not always filmically nuanced – Coogler’s style is essentially sit and exist for a while as things happen around him. He’s a first-timer, of course, and it shows – there isn’t a dynamic shot in the film, for one. It’s all rather … functional, essentially.
Beyond this, he commits a somewhat cardinal sin of show not tell when he needlessly (and viciously at that) goes after Grant’s life and its particulars by just about giving us explicit conversation via text messages sent by Grant that downright slather the screen. This is a common, and commonly annoying, film trick these days, but it’s especially galling in a film that so rigorously acts against this kind of forced intervention elsewhere. Obviously, Coogler wants to tell us as much about Grant’s life as he can, but why do this via such over-written, lazy means when Jordan’s confused and expressive face and the little details Coogler scatters around him tell us all we need to know?
And why must we know at all? So much of the film is about the existential crisis of Grant’s final day on Earth, with us pained and anguished about each choice he makes as we puzzle out the identity of, essentially, a vacuum of a person who comes to life on the screen. Giving us the information via text sacrifices the arch-naturalism of the film, and it moves the film (slightly) away from us having to fill in the details via implicating ourselves in Jordan’s life, assuming things about him and then questioning our assumptions (unquestionably the point of this very much political personal story). It moves the film toward simply giving us details about him and moving on. What works so much about the film is its ability to implicate us through not giving us detail and forcing us to debate with ourselves about who Grant is, seeing him as we might see any young black male on the street and having to treat him with the internal biases we find within us. Being explicit about it all moves us away from addressing the ambiguous, conflicted human that stands before us and toward being told who Grant is. There’s a thin line between “direct and hard-hitting” and “obvious”; Coogler is mostly on the right side, but he sometimes feels the need to compensate against himself needlessly. The thought of truly being a fly-on-the-wall, seeing only what a bystander would see, and having to deduce what Oscar might be saying is fascinating, but Coogler is too interested in telling us his story when he ought to be showing us.
But what a story it is. Enough of my curmudgeonly old man routine for now, for all these complaints are mostly pushed to the side by the film’s undeniable propulsion and raw humanity. For above all Coogler is undeniably a personal film to him and this is what matters – his concern shows through in every frame, even when it hinders him from showing off a little for fear of distracting from his material. This is a deeply affecting, suitably personal, achingly thought-out indie drama that seethes with quiet contempt, even as it centers a certain warm, low-hung humanism lost in today’s film world of bigger and better. Hopefully he’ll pick another passionate, personal project to follow this one, and hopefully he won’t be afraid to announce himself a little more as a director of great invention and great energy, the kind to equal that of his debut feature.